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come from a variety of backgrounds and have more than just coding on their resumés – they’ve taken courses on everything from psychology and medical science to graphic design. (“We look for people who haven’t just studied math and computer science,” says Baecker.) And they think differently. In the case of the ebook, says Massimi, they realized that it was “not just about transmitting information from a file to your ear as fast as possible. It’s about the experience of reading. It’s about being able to connect to other people around reading. It’s about . . . having the freedom to choose what to read, how you read it and when.” As exciting as all these developments are, no amount of technology is going to help an elderly person who doesn’t have an adequate support system – or who is resistant to technology. But that, too, is part of the lab’s raison d’être. The team works diligently to get feedback about their projects. In a process called iterative design, they go back and forth between concept and reality, testing their ideas against the actual needs of their target users. They tested an early prototype of the ebook with Snelgrove’s grandmother and they’re now trying it out with a person who has multiple sclerosis. “We don’t just create a design that we want to use,” says Kaufman. “We will create a design and see how the user likes it and then make changes based on that.” The best example of the lab’s user-friendly philosophy may be the communicating picture frame – a computer so simple it doesn’t look like a computer. Discreetly disguised as a bedside picture frame, it’s actually a touch screen (with a wireless connection) designed to help people in chronic pain communicate with a minimum of effort. One tap on its picture and the computer sends a simple message to a friend or loved one – either “I’m missing you” or “I’m not feeling well today.” With a good support network, the user will get a cheery video message back. Friends and family can either create a new video message or use a previously recorded one. A notification pops up when the new message arrives, the user taps the screen and the video starts playing. In the future, the user may also be able to replay old video messages. The technology itself is more complicated than it sounds, but to the person sending the message, it’s seamless. “One touch by the person with chronic pain and they get a great deal of information back from the family,” says Massimi. When their own expertise in a field runs dry, the TAGlab team often consults with experts in other areas, especially the social sciences. Over the years they’ve worked with people in nursing, neuropsychology, social work and neurology. In the case of the communicating picture frame – and other strategies for alleviating loneliness in chronic-care settings – the team has collaborated with Véronique Boscart, a nurse-researcher at Toronto Rehab who taught in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing for six years. Boscart works with people in chronic care and she’s acutely aware that the best solution does not always require new technology. Some of the people she works with would be happy with a laptop and an Internet

connection. But Boscart likes TAGlab’s bottom-up approach and is happy to provide feedback on their ideas based on her own extensive clinical experience. “There are very few people who focus on solving clinical situations,” she says. “Quite often research happens in an ivory tower and by the time that knowledge is transmitted to the clinical setting a lot of it is lost. I think what TAGlab does is create real solutions for real people and real problems. That’s the beauty. Ron Baecker really thinks outside the box.” t’s not easy working with senior citizens, says Baecker. Members of the TAGlab team often become close to the participants, and a couple of the participants have died during the course of the team’s research. Baecker himself doesn’t seem too daunted by age. He’s 69 and will become a professor emeritus in 2013 but he hopes to keep working until age 99. Asking for any longer – expecting to live into the three digits – is “presumptuous,” he says. He traces back the inspiration for his current research to an academic paper on electronic prostheses he read about a decade ago. Nearing 60 at the time, and dealing with an ill sister, Baecker recalls thinking that prosthesis technology hadn’t come very far since the paper was originally published – in 1990. He and some U of T colleagues decided to try conceptualizing a few possibilities of their own. They came up with ideas for electronic memory aids and presented them at the first international conference on technology and aging, held in Toronto in September 2001. They went on to collaborate with health professionals at Baycrest, building technologies that could improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s and amnesia. “I started thinking this is really what I should do for the rest of my research life,” says Baecker. With about a dozen projects on the go, the TAGlab seems well on its way to realizing its goal of empowering older adults. By keeping its technologies deceptively simple and easy-touse, it aids the old and infirm without ever impinging on their autonomy. Snelgrove’s grandmother will have to wait a little longer for her own personal copy of the Accessible, Largeprint, Listening and Talking ebook, though. The lab likes to make sure its products are glitch-free before they’re released, and the app is still sprouting features. But it will come to market, sooner or later. Baecker has a strong track record for developing viable products (prior to TAGlab he was involved with four startups, one of which, the webcasting firm Captual Technologies, was recently sold to Desire2Learn) – and it’s part of the lab’s ethos. The goal, says Massimi, is to discover people’s needs, develop the technology to address these needs and then actually get the technology into people’s hands. “That’s what we like to do. We like to take stuff out of the lab and get it working.” Brent Ledger is a Toronto writer and former columnist for Xtra! and the Toronto Star.

winter 2012 45

U of T Magazine | Winter 2012  

U of T Magazine is the magazine for the University of Toronto community, published quarterly. Featuring news, events, research stories and p...

U of T Magazine | Winter 2012  

U of T Magazine is the magazine for the University of Toronto community, published quarterly. Featuring news, events, research stories and p...

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